I’m not sure there’s ever been a good time to be a nail biter, exactly. But lately I’ve been feeling almost nostalgic about the carefree days when I could have a good old chew, safe in the knowledge that the only casualties of my actions would be my appearance, and possibly my self-esteem.
Now, every time I put my hand anywhere near my face, I have to contend with the knowledge that I’m not just letting myself down – I’m letting my family down, the NHS down, and my country down too. And that makes me feel anxious. Which, of course, makes me want to bite.
Nail biting is disgusting, ugly, painful. It’s a completely nonsensical habit, yet it afflicts between 20 and 30 per cent of the population. And no demographic, it seems, is immune. I know Michelin-starred chefs, top execs and fashion high-flyers – people who exercise cast-iron discipline in other parts of their life and can achieve pretty much anything they put their mind to – who are cripplingly, weepingly, unable to stop. One acquaintance of mine bit so hard he broke a tooth – and even then it was only the pain of the dentist’s bills that made him quit for good.
Despite being a torment to so many, nail biting – or onychophagia, as it’s properly known – is surprisingly little understood. Psychologists class it in a group of behaviours known as “pathological grooming”, which also includes habits such as hair pulling and skin picking. It’s often described as a means of self-soothing. Personally, I find it rather stressful. And actually quite hard work.
Like the majority of biters, I started in my teens. It was an angsty time in my life, for sure. But I think there was also a part of 16-year-old me that thought nail biting was rather cool. I remember being struck by the fact that Camilla Macaulay in Donna Tartt’s The Secret History smoked and bit her nails – she was brainy, mysterious and a bit dangerous. All the things I wanted to be.
It’s de rigueur to have fierce talons these days: Kylie Jenner with her acrylics dripping in neon pink; J-Lo waving nails encrusted with Versace bling; even Billie Eilish – who defies every girly cliché in the book – graced the Oscars this year with four-inch, jet-black falsies.
I, however, am a child of grunge. All my heroines had tobacco-stained fingers, chipped nail polish, ripped tights and raging drug habits. They didn’t go in for high-maintenance grooming: for us indie kids, that was the sign of a rich interior life. And while I may not style myself after Courtney Love any more, there is still a part of me that harbours a suspicion of perfect hands. “What on earth does she do all day?” I find myself thinking, as I survey some immaculate mani on the Tube. “Too much self-care going on there for my liking – clearly as shallow as a puddle.” But there’s another part of me, deep down, that envies her inner peace.
I’ve tried everything to kick the habit. I applied anti-biting nail paint, but it made my sandwiches taste terrible. I put plasters on my fingers, but then I couldn’t use a touch screen. I bought crystal nail files and kept my nails ultra-short. But however short I kept them, it turned out, I could always bite a little shorter. I’ve got my husband to stage interventions; I’ve tried fining myself; I’ve worn my retainer during the day so I literally cannot bite my nails, even if I want to. I’ve even tried painting my pathetic stumps red to shame myself into stopping – all to no avail.
“If your hands look nice in the first place,” people advised me sweetly, “you won’t feel the urge to bite.” I stockpiled intensive keratin treatments and cuticle creams and nail oils in a bid to make my hands silky-smooth. But then along came the 20-second hand wash. And now my poor, parched claws are a feast of snaggly, scraggy bits crying out for “a bit of tidying up”.
Some reformed biters swear by hypnosis. So, from the confines of lockdown, I decided to test-drive the bestselling app “Stop Nail Biting Hypnosis”. On a lovely spring day, I sat in the garden with my headphones on, closed my eyes and breathed deeply as a mellifluous man took me on a long walk down a beach. “You are mature and confident, you have no need to move your hand to your mouth,” he intoned, as I pondered which shops on our high street might be harbouring a secret stash of loo roll.
The reason most techniques fail, according to Gilbreth Brown, the author of Stop Your Nailbiting! Permanently, is that they don’t treat the underlying rituals that lead up to the bite: the inspecting, the picking, the tidying, the touching. If you really want to succeed, he says, then you need to root these out too. Every time you so much as look at your hands, he says, you must crack a rubber band round your wrist, to quite literally snap yourself out of it. It sounds cranky, but it really does work. I’ve gone months without biting on this advice. The problem is when I’m really absorbed by something I tend to bite without knowing it – and it only takes one mindless moment to put you right back at square one.
I long to give up. I want to be able to hold a wine glass, or offer a business card, without scrunching up my fingers in shame. I want to be able to write 1,000 words without gnawing my fingers to the quick. I want to get a gold-leaf nail art from Shoreditch Nails and peel stickers off things and drum my talons on my desk like a red-hot diva.
But the real reason I want to give up, now, is that my five-year-old son has started biting too. He bites his fingers and toes. The other day he cried because a satsuma he was peeling hurt his chewed little fingertips. And even my inner Riot Grrrl can see that’s not quirky or cool; it’s just plain crazy. I can cope with having a few bad habits myself. But I don’t want them to be catching.